By Tayo Ogunbiyi
“If it were left on me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” — Thomas Jefferson
The foregoing quotation from Thomas Jefferson, a former president of the United States of America, underscores the importance of the media in a democracy. The media is the lifeline of any nation. It provides not only information on what may affect the normal human being in his day-to-day functioning, but also by other features that keep him informed of developments, national and international. The reach of the media and the effect that it can have on the general public has always been recognised and never been challenged.
In Nigeria, the press has always been at the forefront of the nation’s democratic struggle. From the colonial era to the post independence era, the press has been a major rallying point for the Nigerian people. It is to its credit that it has outlived many anti-people governments, though with many wounds and scars. In the dark days of the military, when men of courage and honuor were few, the press, it was, that fought the military to a standstill.
It is, therefore, amusing when President Jonathan recently came out with a scathing remark on the Nigerian press. Feeling the heat from the local press, the President affirmed that the press is no longer in a good stead to assess his administration. The truth of the matter, however, is that successive leaders in the country have come under the full hammer of the press. Infact, the press has been relatively fair to the Jonathan administration when compared to past administrations in the country. Indeed, President Jonathan partly owes his ascendancy to the presidency to the Nigerian press. When his late Principal, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was sick and the ‘cabals’ were playing games with the situation, it was the press that stoutly rose to canvass support for a Jonathan acting presidency. After his landslide victory at the 2011 general elections, President Jonathan became the toast of the press.
What then could be responsible for the sudden crack in relation between the presidency and the press? To start with, there seems to be a general consensus across that the Jonathan administration is moving at a very slow speed. The President himself laid credence to this at a recent forum when he said that Nigerians would start praising him by 2013 when, according to him, they will begin to enjoy the dividends of democracy. So, if the president agrees that the expectation of Nigerians is presently not being met, what does the presidency expect the media to do? Roll out the drums and celebrate the dawn of a new era? It is the duty of the press to put the President and his men on their toes by ensuring that they do not lose focus on their mandate.
There is also the issue of avoidable distractions, especially from the First Lady. When she is not openly castigating an elected governor, roads are being blocked across the land to herald her presence in town. While the rest of us wonder what the future holds for us, the First Lady has ingenuously ‘secured’ hers by becoming the first Permanent Secretary at large in the history of the nation. Each time we think we have had enough of her comic relief, trust the First Lady, she has a way of coming up with one of her distractive acts. Now, what should the press do? Applaud the presidency for refusing to tame the Dame?
Aside this, the President has not been taking advantage of his public outings to warm himself into the hearts of Nigerians. Many examples abound. In his recent visit to the training camp of the Super Eagles of Nigeria, a commendable populist act, the President mixed it up again. Having had a first- hand view of the sorry state of the pitch, one would have expected the President to query the appropriate authorities on the poor state of the pitch. But what did the President do? He set up another ‘powerful’ committee consisting of, wait for it, the Honourable Minister of Finance (who also doubles as the Coordinating Minister of the economy among others), Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and Sports ministers as well as the Director General, National Sports Commission (NSC) to oversee the maintenance of the stadium. A Committee of three obviously busy ministers just for the maintenance of a football pitch? What is the duty of the Sports Ministry? What happens to the budgetary allocation for stadium maintenance? Where are the government officials whose statutory responsibility it is to maintain the stadium? Now that the Abuja stadium has a committee to oversee its maintenance, what happens to the stadia in Lagos, Ibadan, Enugu and Kaduna with similar problems?
The truth is that the President has continued to expose himself and his government to avoidable media ridicule. It is true that the myriad of challenges the country is presently grappling with have been with us before the advent of the Jonathan Presidency. But this should not be an excuse for failure since the President was aware of these problems before he decided to vie for the residency. In fact, it is expected that the time he spent as Vice and Acting President ought to have prepared him for the task ahead. The fact, however, is that Nigerians are yet to be convinced that the Presidency has what it takes to tackle these problems with the required scientific and analytical precision.
Rather than vent his anger and frustration on the press, the President needs to fully concentrate on governance. Nigerians are not asking for too much. They are neither asking the President to dry up the Red Sea as Moses did nor demanding that the River Niger be brought to Kano. All they want are signs that the government is working for their good. Once they are sure of this, the Presidency can be sure that it has an ally in the people and indeed the media. Also, we can do without the distractions of the First Lady and other parasites that feed fat on the system who pretend to be the President’s best friends. The President should be wary of such political jobbers and their hypocritical tendencies.
Perhaps, more importantly, while interacting with the media, the president and his aides need to be resourceful so that they have the best chance of being able to put their case across. In this current political climate where negative myths about the government have been allowed to fester in the public sphere, it is essential that the president and his aides are able to argue their position well. This can only be done through civilised and professionally articulated viewpoints. Rather than the present confrontational approach, the presidency has to devise ingenious means of dealing with the media. Strategies may be as straightforward as knowing the issues well enough to be able to respond aptly and also knowing when not to engage by refusing to respond if the subject is irrelevant. The Presidency needs to discern how to compete with other interests that are seeking the attention of the media. It’s a game, a strategy and the better players hold the ace.
Finally, the Presidency needs to be able to translate its transformation agenda into language and imagery that others can relate with. Flexing muscle with the media does not do any government any good. The challenge, therefore, is for the presidency to extend its scope beyond the orb of professional praise singers and sycophants who will rather tell the world that the Jonathan presidency is the best thing to happen to us, to those whose views remain antagonistic. This is what covering new grounds is all about.
•Ogunbiyi is of the Features Unit, Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja.